[pp. 80 – 88 of A Prophet With Honor by William Martin]
Theologically, Wheaton was a Lamb's-blood relative of Bob Jones College and Florida Bible Institute, and the motto carved on the cornerstone of Blanchard Hall—For Christ and His Kingdom—clearly expressed the dominant ethos, but Wheaton embodied the broadest spirit of American Fundamentalism in the 1930s. As an accredited and academically respectable liberal arts college, it attracted the offspring of many of America's most affluent and influential Fundamentalist families. Because Wheaton gave him almost no credit for his courses in Florida, Billy, now almost twenty-two, had to enroll as a freshman. If his bright clothes, Li'I Abner brogans, and North Carolina accent caused people to think him a naive country boy, his age and status as an ordained minister with real preaching experience gave him a jump on other neophytes, and he soon emerged as a well-known campus figure. He had not yet drawn many invitations to preach, and Frank Graham had stopped sending him money, so he found a job working for another student who hauled luggage and furniture in a battered old yellow pickup. The CEO of the Wheaton College Student Trucking Service was preparing for mission work in China and introduced his new assistant to Ruth Bell, a second-year student who, as the daughter of a Presbyterian medical missionary, had grown up in Tsingkiang, China. Ruth claims not to remember their first meeting with any real clarity. Billy fell in love with her immediately and informed his mother of that fact before he ever got up the courage to ask for a date.
In many respects, Ruth's and Billy's childhoods could hardly have differed more. He had pored over books about faraway lands; she lived about as far away from Charlotte as it was possible to get. He had heard sermons on the wickedness of card playing and swearing; her regular path to school took her alongside putrid streams where dogs ate the tiny carcasses of infants slain by their parents because they were female or deformed. She knew of children kidnapped by bandits and sold into slavery or prostitution, and of missionaries who had been murdered or who had killed themselves in despair over the wretchedness of their circumstances. Billy arose at 2:30 A.M. to milk cows; Ruth often still lay awake at that hour, unable to sleep because of the noise from gunfire and bombs, or from fear of rats and scorpions that even the strictest measures could not eliminate. In Mecklenburg County, the religiously peculiar were those who insisted on singing hymns without an organ or who kept the Sabbath as if they were Jews; Billy's father had once warned him to be wary of Lutherans because they held "very strange beliefs." In North Kiangsu province, nine thousand miles away, the heretics were the Christians, foreign devils with their peculiar belief in only one God, and that one a wrathful being who permitted the death of his only son.
Despite these differences, striking points of contact existed between the two young people. Ruth's father, Dr. L. Nelson Bell, not only loved baseball but had signed a contract with a Baltimore Orioles farm team shortly before he got caught up in the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions (inspired by D. L. Moody) and dedicated himself to medical missions. As head of the Tsingkiang General Hospital, founded in 1887 by Pearl Buck's father, Dr. Bell proved to be a talented surgeon and, like Frank Graham, a resourceful provider. Also like the Grahams, the Bells steeped their brood in Presbyterian piety, rearing them on daily doses of private and family devotions and expecting them to commit large sections of Scripture to memory. Ruth's religion, however, took a serious turn far earlier than did Billy's. By the time she was twelve, she was pointing toward a career as an oldmaid missionary to Tibet and praying regularly for a martyr's death. As another measure of her devotion, she loved to conduct animal funerals, complete with hymns and eulogies, before interring the dearly departed in her own pet cemetery. Of these leanings, Dr. Bell observed in a note to her teacher, "We feel Ruth has a slight tendency to revel in the sad side of things, letting her religion (which is exceedingly real and precious to her) take a slightly morbid turn." As she matured, the darker side of her piety gave way to a spunky willingness to tackle the world head-on rather than look for avenues of escape, but she continued to cling to the vision of a solitary mission to nomadic Tibetan tribes, at least in part, because it seemed like the hardest challenge she could possibly undertake.
During 1935 and 1936, the Bells spent a furlough year in Montreat, North Carolina, a picturesque mountainside village that served as a conference center and retirement community for Southern Presbyterians. Both Ruth and her sister Rosa finished high school that year. Rosa entered Wheaton in the fall of 1936, and Ruth followed a year later. Though obviously of modest means—her dress wardrobe consisted of one good black dress, a blue tweed suit she had picked up at a street bazaar in Chicago, and some dime-store pearls—Ruth's vivacious beauty, a young lifetime of unusual experiences that fascinated Christian youth who considered the mission field the highest of human callings, and her well-known piety (she rose regularly at 5:00 A.M., for prayer and Bible reading) made her the prize catch of her class.
Though Ruth felt no thunderbolt when she met Billy Graham during the fall semester of 1940, he impressed her a few days later by the fervor of his prayer at an informal church meeting. "I had never heard anyone pray like [that] before," she said. "I sensed that here was a man that knew God in a very unusual way." When he eventually summoned the courage to ask her to accompany him to a performance of Handel's Messiah, she readily accepted. After the concert and a slow, snowy walk to a professor's house for tea, he wrote home again, announcing that he planned to marry this new girl who reminded him so much of his mother. The Grahams took note but made no wedding plans. As younger sister jean recalls, "He had fallen in love so many times, we didn't pay much attention to him." Ruth, always more private, chose to let God alone know that "if you let me serve you with that man, I'd consider it the greatest privilege in my life." Their courtship was a strange one. Well aware that a young woman might not return his affection in full measure, Billy seemed to doubt he deserved or could win Ruth's love. Their next date came six weeks later, after she invited him, by mail, to a party at her boardinghouse. A week later, he asked her out again and clumsily sputtered that he had been reluctant to pursue his interest in her because he did not feel a definite call to the mission field, a revelation that seemed a bit premature for a third date. He followed this by asking her out, then ignoring her, then asking if he was embarrassing her by taking her out too frequently. He also told her that he had asked the Lord to give her to him if that was his will, but to keep him from loving her if that would be best for both of them. She was clearly intrigued and wrote to her parents about this "humble, thoughtful, unpretentious, courteous" young man with an uncommon determination to discern and do God's will, but she found his courtship rituals a bit peculiar and began to date other students. This produced the desired result, and Billy delivered an ultimatum: "Either you date just me, or you can date everybody but me!" That also worked, and they began to go out on a regular basis, usually to some kind of preaching service. He impressed her with his "fearless, uncompromising presentation of the Gospel," but she later confessed she thought his preaching was too loud and too fast, and it took her some time to get used to the fact that, almost invariably, it produced an impressive harvest at the invitation.
As Billy grew surer of their relationship, he began to assume the authoritarian, patriarchal manner he had learned at home. He told Ruth what to eat and sat across from her until she complied. He insisted she get more exercise and personally put her through a rigorous program of calisthenics. She confided to her parents that Bill (she never called him Billy) "isn't awfully easy to love because of his sternness and unwavering stand on certain issues," but his assurance that he did what he did because he loved her invariably melted her resistance. They talked of the future in terms of their respective "calls." She still clung to her dream of evangelizing Tibet. He respected this noble aspiration but, since he felt no Himalayan call himself, tried to convince her that the highest role a woman could fill was that of wife and mother. Both agreed to read the Bible and pray for God's leading. No burning light of revelation came, so Billy decided to proceed without it. At the end of the spring semester, just before they parted for the summer of 1941, he asked Ruth to marry him. She did not respond immediately, but a few weeks later, while he was filling in for John Minder in Tampa, she wrote that she believed their relationship was "of the Lord" and would be pleased to become his wife. On July 7, she acknowledged to her parents, "To be with Bill in [evangelistic] work won't be easy. There will be little financial backing, lots of obstacles and criticism, and no earthly glory whatsoever," but added, "I knew I wouldn't have peace till I yielded my will to the Lord and decided to marry Bill." At this point, they had yet to kiss.
That summer, Billy met the Bells, who had finally been forced out of China by the Japanese, and Ruth came to Charlotte to visit the Grahams. Both visits went well. At the end of the summer, Billy went to Montreat, North Carolina, where the Bells had settled permanently, and presented Ruth with an engagement ring. Then, just as she prepared to return to school, Ruth grew so ill that her parents feared she might have malaria and decided to put both her and Rosa, who was suffering from tuberculosis, into a Presbyterian sanatorium in New Mexico. The rest restored Ruth's health—Rosa also recovered, though much more slowly—but the equanimity she experienced during the separation resurrected old doubts. Eventually, she wrote Billy that she had grown unsure of her love for him and thought it best to break their engagement. He was crushed but decided not to react hastily. When she returned to school in January 1942, he offered to take back the ring, but she hesitated, explaining that the real problem was that she still felt called to be a missionary. Sensing an opening, he used an approach whose efficacy he would not forget: He convinced her that not to do what he wanted would be to thwart God's obvious will. "Do you or do you not think the Lord brought us together?" he asked. She admitted she thought that was indeed the case. He pointed out that the Bible says the husband is head of the wife and declared, with an authoritativeness probably grounded on shifting sand, "Then I'll do the leading and you do the following." Ruth Bell eventually surrendered her missionary vocation, but only the blindest of observers would conclude that she also surrendered her will or her independence.
Billy and Ruth set their wedding date for August 1943, still more than eighteen months away. In the meantime, they finished school. Ruth majored become pastor of the church upon graduation at a salary of forty-five dollars a week. Other churches had shown an interest in Billy, but with the prospect of having to support a wife looming large, he accepted the offer without consulting Ruth, an oversight that led to a spirited discussion of the distinction between authority and thoughtfulness. At least part of her irritation stemmed from her fear that a pastorate would deter Billy from evangelism. She need not have worried. He apparently never intended to stay in Western Springs for long. The war had stirred his patriotic fires, and he decided to enlist. When his professors persuaded him he could do more good as a minister, he applied for commission as an army chaplain, stating a preference for a battlefront assignment. Twice, the army rejected his application on the grounds that he lacked pastoral experience and was underweight.
After their wedding in Montreat on Friday the thirteenth of August, Ruth caught a chill on the trip back to Western Springs from their seven-day honeymoon at a tourist home in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Instead of calling to cancel a routine preaching engagement in Ohio so that he could stay at the bedside of his brand-new bride, a reason his hosts would surely have accepted graciously, Billy checked her into a local hospital and kept the appointment, sending her a telegram and a box of candy for consolation. She felt hurt at this apparent lack of concern for her condition and feelings but soon learned that nothing came before preaching on her husband's list of priorities and that this would not be the last time he would leave a hospital bed (including his own) or miss key moments of sorrow or celebration because of a promise to preach.
Despite the brevity of the only eighteen months he would ever spend as a pastor, Billy displayed talents and received opportunities at Western Springs that proved crucial in his rise to national prominence. He had come to think of himself as a Baptist—indeed, he had stirred Ruth's ire by suggesting that if Dr. Bell were a true Christian, he would also become a Baptist—but he was unwilling to draw lines that would limit his reach and persuaded the deacons to change the name of the Western Springs Baptist Church to the more inclusive Village Church. He launched a businessmen's dinner series at which prominent Evangelical speakers addressed as many as five hundred men. He also helped the church begin a mission program, retire a long-standing mortgage, and make plans to add an above-ground sanctuary. He was not, however, particularly skilled at such staples of pastoral work as personal visitation and managing conflict within the congregation. "Billy's not a pastor," a close friend from this period observed. "This kind of thing was very difficult for him—not to do, but to like. He'd rather preach, and be in association with other men who were preaching." One man who recognized this most clearly was Torrey Johnson, the enterprising and extraordinarily persuasive young pastor of Chicago's thriving Midwest Bible Church. Johnson knew Graham through Wheaton and the National Association of Evangelicals. He had heard him preach on several occasions and was impressed with his prowess; in fact, he had countered Billy's desire to get additional theological training with a classic soul winner's admonition: "Get in there and preach. That's the theological school you need." Johnson produced a popular Sunday-evening radio program Songs in the Night, aired over the fifty-thousand-watt clear-channel station WCFL from Chicago. When the crush of his pastoral duties and another radio program proved too great a burden, he approached Billy about taking his place on Songs in the Night. Billy immediately recognized the possibilities and convinced the church to take up the challenge, even though the program's weekly budget of nearly $150 would exceed the congregation's pledged income.
Billy's instincts proved correct. With a confidence bordering on gall, he persuaded bass-baritone George Beverly Shea, already well-known among Evangelicals in the Chicago area for a program on the Moody Bible Institute station (WMBI), to become the show's primary musical performer. Beginning in January 1944, from ten thirty to quarter past eleven every Sunday evening, the program originated live from the basement sanctuary of "the friendly church in the pleasant community of Western Springs." Between Bev Shea's unadorned yet rich renderings of hymns and gospel songs and the peppier trillings of a girls' quartet known as The King's Karrolers, Billy, sitting at a table outlined in colored lights to provide a dramatic aura for the live audience, offered brief meditations. Many of these pointed out the relevance of the Christian message to various contemporary problems and situations: the loneliness of families separated by war, the need for courage and confidence in the face of danger and fear, the perils of succumbing to the lures of alcohol and licentiousness, the relevance of biblical prophecy for understanding world events. Back in Charlotte, too far from Chicago for the Philco in the Grahams' den to pick up the program unless the weather cooperated, Frank and Morrow sat in their car long past their regular bedtime, turned on the Plymouth's stronger radio, and strained through the static to hear that familiar and increasingly distinctive voice. "Imagine," they sometimes said. "That's our Billy Frank."
The program caught on quickly, and contributions from listeners relieved the church of any financial burden. Requests for sheet music of Bev Shea's songs led Robert Van Kampen to launch the Van Kampen Press, which eventually grew into a major Evangelical publishing house whose substantial profits supported a variety of Evangelical missions. The program also boosted Billy's reputation, generating more invitations to speak at churches throughout the region, a result that irritated parishioners who felt a pastor needed to be at home, tending the sheep. Ever his defender, Bob Van Kampen helped keep the criticism from getting out of hand. Once, after accompanying Billy on a two-week tour through the Midwest, he reported to the deacon's meeting that "there is only one thing that I can say, and that is that God has laid upon Billy a special gift of evangelism and someday he could be another Billy Sunday or D. L. Moody." Recalling this occasion decades later, Van Kampen observed, "That's in the minutes the church. I wasn't being prophetic. It was obvious." For his part, Billy was beginning to understand that a free-lance ministry of the sort that med to fit his talent and ambition might flourish best when free of the 'inevitable parochial concerns of a conventional congregation. While his parishioners chafed, he began to move in directions that would change the course of his career and, indeed, of Evangelical Christianity.
Meanwhile, Eevangelical Christianity was moving in new directions of its own. During the height of Billy Sunday's popularity, Fundamentalism had appeared to be in reasonably good shape. It had a coherent view of Scripture to defend against Modernist critics, it was riding a crest of patriotism, and it had shared in what was ostensibly a stunning moral victory by helping to bring about Prohibition, which went into effect in 1920. Yet, within ten years, this formidable movement was devastated by defeat and dissension. At the Scopes trial in 1925, famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow failed to have his client acquitted for the crime of teaching evolution in the Dayton, Tennessee, high school, but he and the world press still managed to make Fundamentalists look like monkeys. On the heels of that embarrassment, Princeton Theological Seminary and several major denominations—most notably the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the Northern Baptists—repelled the Fundamentalist challenge to modern biblical criticism and, in effect, drove most Fundamentalists from their midst. As a final symbolic blow, Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Fundamentalism, it appeared, had been defeated and relegated to a minor position in American culture. Its tendency toward intellectual rigidity, its propensity for attracting and lending support to anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, and other nativist and right-wing political elements, and its often uncritical equation of Christianity and Americanism had all helped its decline, a decline many observers felt would continue inexorably until the last Fundamentalist had withered and died with a sour whimper.
Fundamentalism did indeed pass through a wilderness, but it did not enter the grave. It not only failed to disappear during the 1930s but underwent a transformation that left it in a reasonably strong position by the end of the decade. That transformation involved shifting, realigning, and reorganizing its base. Instead of trying to fight off liberals within mainstream denominations, Fundamentalists began to form themselves into large independent congregations, usually centered around a notable preacher, and to join alliances such as the World Christian Fundamentalist Association. An even more significant development was the substantial increase in the number of Bible colleges and institutes favoring impeccably orthodox teaching and practical instruction in Christian service over the liberal arts they felt had undermined commitment to truth more narrowly conceived. The model, of course, was Moody Bible Institute, which had trained more than sixty-nine-thousand students by 1930. The Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) enjoyed a similar status on the West Coast. By 1940 more than a hundred such institutions had sprung up all over America. Fundamentalists also made extraordinarily wide use of publications and radio; by 1943 BIOLA graduate Charles Fuller's programs were carried by over a thousand stations, and generous donations from loyal listeners enabled him to found Fuller Theological Seminary, which would become one of the most respected and influential of Evangelical schools.
Not only had dozens of Fundamentalist editors and radio ministers kept Evangelical doctrines before the people but they had made it clear that unnumbered legions still built on the firm foundation, still walked on the ancient pathways, and would teach their children to do the same. In 1941 two new organizations were formed, representing the extreme and moderate branches of the movement. The American Council of Christian Churches, founded by the cantankerous archconservative, Carl McIntire, banned from its membership churches or denominations that had truck with Modernists or belonged to the liberal Federal Council of Churches. Reacting against this extreme separatist position, a more temperate coalition established the National Association of Evangelicals. A third organization, formed during this period to save young people from modernists, communists, and worldliness, called itself Youth for Christ International. Youth for Christ produced many new and dynamic leaders, but none of its young stars would outshine Billy Graham.
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